Monday, February 18, 2013

The Mystic Eyes of Doctor Strange

Perhaps I'm exaggerating, but amongst comic book scholars there are few topics I can think of which are as divisive as the shape of Dr. Strange's eyes (unless it's the colours of the stripes on Captain America's shield). It's well-known that when Dr. Strange first debuted, Steve Ditko drew his hero's eyes as partially-closed or slanted. Slanted eyes are usually employed by artists to indicate Asian characteristics, as with Dr. Strange's mentor, the Ancient One. Ditko drew Dr. Strange this way for his first eight adventures, then graduated him to a rounded-eye design which emphasized the sorcerer's Caucasian features.

Of course, all the obscure by-ways of 1960s Marvel Comics have been referenced and retread to some extent. Dr. Strange's slanted eyes have been restored to him by various fan/artists such as Erik Larsen and John Byrne (above). This is a means by which the fan/artists express their support for the author's original intent,* a way to reflect the way the character was originally depicted (and possibly "correctly" depicted) and demonstrate how much the character has changed over time. Thus, a depiction of Dr. Strange with slanted eyes is "retro," an homage to his roots, a celebration of Steve Ditko's vision... even though Ditko changed his mind about how to express Dr. Strange's eyes after just eight early stories.**

But let's not think of Stephen Strange's eyes as a mere fetish. What could the slanted eyes possibly mean within the context of Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange? The obvious conclusion to draw would be to assume Steve Ditko originally intended for Doctor Strange to be an Asian man. If Dr. Strange were Asian, it would rewrite our understanding of racial diversity in 1960s comic books as he'd predate Luke Cage by almost 10 years as the first non-white "Marvel Age" leading character. This may not change how we feel about the 1960s Marvel Comics themselves, but it would validate how we feel about being fans of the 1960s comics.

Further, we've always viewed the origin of Doctor Strange as the tale of a "man of the western world" who ventures into "the mysterious east" and gains "enlightenment." He begins his origin as a self-absorbed surgeon, loses his vocation after suffering a debilitating injury, journeys to Tibet just to demand the Ancient One cure him, but ultimately discovers a higher calling when he realizes magic is real, the Ancient One is waging a constant war against the evil forces of magic and the Ancient One needs a disciple. Our belief that "the east" is a land of mystery, magic and enlightenment is a little cliche, just a touch patronizing. Why should the east seem anymore mysterious, magical or enlightening than the west... except that most of our heroes originate in the west?

Ah, but if Dr. Strange were Asian... now the story isn't about a man braving a foreign culture to discover a new way of living, now it's the story of a man discovering his own heritage. In this scenario, Stephen Strange would be a westernized Asian man whose ego has grown healthy in the decadent world he's been brought up in, but his own ego and determination eventually leads him home, where he rediscovers the values of his ancestors. Say, that's not such a bad tale. I guess there's no reason we couldn't consider it a valid interpretation of Doctor Strange's character...

...Except for one thing: Doctor Strange is not Asian.

Although the Doctor Strange stories from Strange Tales#110 & 119 each featured Dr. Strange's slanted eyes, his origin story (#115) introduces Stephen Strange with rounded, Caucasian eyes. And so his eyes remained...

...Until, most curiously, he began his tutelage under the Ancient One. For some reason, studying magic in Tibet caused Stephen Strange to metamorph into an Asian man. Or, at least, a Caucasian man with Asian eyes. Perhaps it's simply a mark of how Stephen changed, having become so inwardly transformed by his reeducation that it took on a physical manifestation; magic could be like that. Truly, after his experiences in Tibet, Stephen Strange could never blend in with his own culture again; he couldn't hold a normal occupation, live in a normal house, love normal women... perhaps it's right that Stephen was physically transformed and in a way other than what he wished. Stephen asked the Ancient One to heal his hands: instead, he opened his eyes... by closing them.

I do not have a solution of my own to this riddle. But just thinking of Stephen as an Asian man... it changes how I feel when the Ancient One calls him, "son."

This article was inspired by a series of articles penned by Colin Smith at Sequart; please read them for yourself here!

*= Likewise when Byrne overruled the assertion of the Hulk's skin being gray in his first appearance as a colourist's error, making the gray skin canon. He could not, however, convince us about what colour the spider on Spider-Man's back should be.

**= It would be interesting to review Dr. Strange's appearances and see if he's been drawn with slanted eyes in more than eight non-Ditko stories. I would guess he has.